As non-profit 501 (c) 3's around the country make a mad dash for end of the year donations, it gives me some pause for thought about the whole nature of "giving."
Charity has become big business. Who to give to, when to give, and what to give has become an industry stuffed full of consultants, psychologists and public relations specialists. But in this world of tax deductibility, image burnishing and damage control, does that old saw about giving versus receiving have any contemporary relevance? And, by extension, should "giving" always entail "receiving" some sort of acknowledgment?
Larry David took on this heady question with his usual comedic aplomb in a "Curb Your Enthusiasm" episode: The Anonymous Donor. Larry gets into a kerfuffle after finding out from wife Cheryl, that buddy Ted Danson has made an "anonymous" donation to the same art institution that was the recipient of Larry's largesse — albeit, in his case, with acknowledgment. Going ballistic after seeing references to these donations on opposite walls, he’s made to suffer further with Cheryl's off-handed response: "he doesn’t need the whole world to know that he donated all that money."
Maimonides, the esteemed Jewish philosopher of the middle-ages, thought well and long about the nature of philanthropic giving; establishing a "golden ladder of charity." Lowest on the rung was giving of the "hand, not the heart." In other words: a forced giving with some expectation of a return (think acknowledgement). The top of the ladder was reserved for those whose giving is anonymous and selfless, purely aimed at improving the lot of the recipient.
No one can argue with the beneficial nature of philanthropy. Obviously, green is green no matter what the motive of the donor, so, I'll admit, this is more of a philosophical musing. But I have to say that I did a double-take this fall when reading that the New York Police & Fire Widow's Benefit Fund would hold a gala, hosted by NBC's Brian Williams, honoring Goldman Sachs Chairman and CEO, Lloyd C. Blankfein.
Coming as it did, in mid-October, I couldn't fail to dwell on the significance of the potential positive press for Goldman at a time when Occupy Wall Street’s efforts were in full swing. Now nobody can take Blankfein to task for his firm's donation of big bucks to a good cause, but I couldn't shake the vision that kept popping up in my brain; a historical parallel of sorts. There was New York’s iconic Boss Tweed, Tammany Hall's 19th century political boss, out and about in immigrant neighborhoods — in the dead of winter — handing out much needed pots of coal.
Whether you use charity to foster good will or to buy votes (the former, quite acceptable, the latter, illegal), those karmically/philosophically inclined may want to dwell on the strange case of New Jersey Irish American billionaire, Charles F. Feeney. I guess he'd rank high in the estimation of Maimonides by successfully giving away most of his fortune, anonymously. In fact, so anonymously, that several business magazines continued to estimate his net worth in the billions long after he had donated 600 million to a variety of medical institutions and parked the rest in two philanthropic foundations.
His story only came to light in 1997 after his company — consisting of duty free stores around the world — was sold to Moet, and the press got wind of his charitable pursuits. When asked why he had done all this, his reply: "I simply decided I had enough money…It doesn't drive my life." Even a recent gift to his alma mater, Cornell, in the amount of $350 million, was first reported as coming from an unnamed donor. Finally, after Cornell was peppered with questions about who'd give this sort of money the foundation felt compelled to release his name. That done, I guess he'll fade back into the philanthropic woodwork.
So, is he a better man, then let's say, Lloyd Blankfein? That, relatively speaking, is a good question.
Joel Sucher, a filmmaker with Pacific Street Films in Hastings-on-Hudson, N.Y. is working on "Foreclosure Diaries," a documentary about the financial crisis.